A Writer's First Aid Kit: How to Ignore your English Teacher and still Succeed at Writingby Skye S, Thursday July 28, 2016
How to Ignore your English Teacher and still Succeed at Writing
The final blog in a Writer's First Aid Kit by ᙢᗴᖇᙓᑕᗩ☂
There's no need to describe everything...
Supposedly description is the root of successful writing and so your English teacher will attempt to persuade you that it is necessary to season your work with an almost 1:1 ratio of nouns to adjectives. They may even encourage you to believe in the power of three and so require a 1:3 ratio.
I disagree. Reading such bloated description is like trying to run on dry sand. Warm dry sand is lovely, it feels beautiful under your toes, but the longer and the harder you try to run, the more you hate it. It sucks you down, weighs you deeply, and makes all movement feel exhausting and tedious. In short, there is such a thing as ‘too much of a good thing’. I am a big believer in description, but I am not a big believer in the stupid and leaden idea that every object must be assigned at least one adjective to enhance it. Enhancement does not happen. Your writing becomes a sand dune or a peat bog. Do not try to describe everything half-heartedly. Pick a few important details and devote hours to imagining how they can be depicted in a vivid and expressive way.
Often the key to good and concise descriptive writing is less in the description than in the words you select to form the basic scaffold of your sentence – in other words, verbs are important. Don’t bother telling me that the rain started to fall slowly and pathetically in small, grey streams that fell to the ground and disappeared into the dry pavement. Tell me instead that the rain dribbled out of the sky and sponged into the pavement.
Contrary to your teacher’s advice, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” I agree with Stephen King, adverbs can be hard to avoid but if you have to describe a verb you know that the verb itself isn’t strong enough to stand up by itself.
Don’t use a simile…when you can use a metaphor!
English teachers love similes; they are the bread and butter of creative writing lessons and, from the age of seven or so, your will have them force-fed into your writing. In truth, similes are rarely very powerful – they can be nice, they can be a pretty and a simple way of describing something but they are not going to put your creative writing assignment on a library shelf. The truth is that saying that something is like something else is never going to have the strength and the vividness of saying that it is something else. Essentially similes and metaphors are analogies – you describe one thing by linking it to an analogy that enhances it – and the closer the resemblance between the thing and what it is compared to, the stronger the analogy. So don’t tell me that the evening clouds were like dregs in a soup bowl, tell me that the evening clouds are dregs in a soup bowl.
Don’t use a metaphor either…unless you’ve got an original one.
I am with your English teacher on this one in as much as I love nothing more than a good metaphor. Once you’ve tackled similes, metaphors are the next rung on the ladder. However (and this however is of great importance), your English teacher will tell you to stuff your writing full of them, each piece of metaphorical evidence wins you another tick… and so the lake is a mirror, the Sahara is an oven, his eyes are melted chocolate, the heather is the sea, and the workman in the garage is a kid in a candy store.
What I’m trying to tell you is that there is a bank of over-used, basic metaphors which often crop up in creative writing as a result of writers being instructed that metaphors will make their writing great. These metaphors pile up and turn your writing into a cliché mountain and if you’re going to tell me that his eyes are melted chocolate, I’d rather you just skipped the literary technique and tell me that they’re brown. Metaphors will make your writing great, but only if they are inserted with care and consideration.
Writing a good metaphor is about two things: having an original insight on how something appears and giving the metaphor depth and complexity. Metaphors are not throw-away tokens, they need consideration. Do not bother comparing an object to something it has already been compared to, or something that it is too similar to to merit a comparison. Equally, do not try so hard to be original and fresh that you compare the object in question with something of blatantly zero resemblance. Sometimes complexity comes from being specific and just elaborating slightly on an idea (let’s take the Sahara being an oven, for example. This comparison works so much better with just a little more specific detail – the Saharan sun was an aga that slow-cooked our brains.) On other occasions, complexity comes from the number of parallels you can create between the object and the thing you compare it to so that it has many levels – this is perhaps more for extended metaphors – so that the deeper you stare into the metaphor, the more clever it appears to be.
For example in Blake’s poem London “And the hapless Soldier’s sigh/ Runs in blood down Palace walls” this metaphor is brilliant because it has many notable points. Firstly it uses the suffering of one individual to represent an absolute tidal wave of bloodshed and sacrifice and the fact that the blood ‘runs’ evokes the graphic image of the quantity of death and pain. Then the fact that this individual’s suffering taints the monarchy to the outsider’s view is noted as the blood is his sigh and stains the walls… but then this metaphor actually criticises simultaneously the way that the powerful escape the stains of their crimes against their own people by distancing themselves with the palace walls that keep them high above the poor who die for them.
Don’t use a thesaurus…unless you know the word you’re looking for.
Teachers will tell you that thesauruses are vital tools to expand your vocabulary. No. They are not. Thesauruses are helpful if you want to use a word in your writing which has (for no good reason) escaped your mind and so you think of a similar word and look it up and underneath that entry is the desired (but forgotten) word you had planned to use all along.
The best way to expand your vocabulary is to read. Thesauruses are just traps into which creative writing students fall. For example, you want another word for ‘brilliant’ to describe a birthday at the park and so you look in a thesaurus and it tells you ‘accomplished’ and ‘dazzling’ and ‘effectual’ and ‘lustrous’ – none of which are in any way suitable for describing a highly enjoyable birthday party.
Don’t use alliteration and onomatopoeia…unless you’re writing a book for six-year-olds, in which case, fire away.
I’m sorry; I cannot even give you a full paragraph for this. I can only say that reading these spoken techniques in written prose makes me cringe. They work for spoken word or children’s stories (which will probably be read aloud to the children anyway), but not for anything else. No matter what your teacher tells you about them enhancing you work, DO NOT USE THEM.
Don’t use rhetorical questions…unless you’re writing a persuasive speech, and even then it’s better to avoid them.
Rhetorical questions are the laziest way to force your point of view on someone. Often these questions are not even wisely used; they are just thrown abundantly into any work – persuasive or otherwise – without much thought or meaning. (If you are going to write ‘Why is this?’ You might as well not write anything because you are evidently going to explain why in the next paragraph. If you are going to write ‘Why are we killing the planet?’ you’d be better off writing ‘We’re killing the planet’ because then it’s a concrete fact and it’s far more hard-hitting.)
Satire and irony are your new best friends.
Don’t let anyone force your imagination to conform.
When I was ten, I had to write a mystery story set in Egypt. What I created was essentially an Egyptian-themed rewriting of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone with a brutal murder-mystery twist. (A trio of young detectives trying to work out who was attempting to raid a pyramid containing one of the most precious rare jewels in the world and how to stop them. The thief became progressively more violent, killing off anyone who came close to solving the mystery. The trio were convinced that the criminal was a Snape-like character who sold camels until a surprise twist revealed that it was the timid hotel manager where the trio had been staying. It ended with an exciting showdown in the well-protected pyramid which left only the protagonist standing to face the hotel manager – who was working for some sort of mafia organisation – one on one.)
My teacher read it (missed the fact that I had copied Harry Potter) and was concerned with the fact that my imagination was too violent. She told me “This is very graphic, are you sure that it’s necessary for all these horrible deaths? Perhaps you should make it a little less bloodthirsty.”
Did I change it? Of course I didn’t. Now I must emphasise that this was an absolutely terrible story and the fact that my ten-year-old imagination created it is probably quite twisted… but the brutality of it was the one ingredient that saved it from being a horrendous Harry-Potter-meets-Enid-Blyton-limited-addition-mash-up.
When I was in year seven, every single pupil had to write a story about school for a year-group-wide competition. My English teacher told us “As the specification says that it’s set in school, I’d advise you to write something realistic that you can all relate to as students.” My friend wrote about the entire school population, bar two students and one teacher, being killed in an enormous flood. I wrote about escaped lions on the school field. We won the competition.
What I’m saying is that you should not be afraid to take risks and ignore the lines in which teachers will try to confine your ideas. I am no longer anywhere near as imaginative as I was at age ten and eleven, but I know from what I’ve read that you movellians are and you need to treasure that rather than let people tell you that it’s too far-fetched!
Do not believe that you cannot write what you want to write because it will break some sort of code that English teachers and/or the literary world has drawn. The best way in which I can explain the laws of writing is by using a theory about miracles that I learnt in Religious Studies, which goes like this: If miracles are transgressions of the laws of nature and the laws of nature are simply what is observed to be the case, then miracles cannot exist because, by performing their exception to the laws of nature, they are only extending the laws of nature. We used a chocolate cake analogy to understand this: you are making a chocolate cake and the recipe (the laws of nature) says it takes 30 minutes to cook but for some unexplained reason (miracle) there is no chocolate and so your chocolate cake becomes a Victoria sponge, it takes 25 minutes to cook instead of 30 but it has not broken the law of the recipe (law of nature) because it has created a new one for a new circumstance.
ANYWAY enough philosophy… the point I’m taking a very long time to make is that literature and creative writing are constantly being changed by what is written. There are no laws or at least, the laws of literature are in constant evolution. A Victorian critic would never have accepted anything other than linguistic quality as a sign of literary merit but these days ‘The Colour Purple’ is widely celebrated and it’s written essentially in the verbatim of a semi-educated girl’s prayers. So if a teacher tells you that you cannot write a story that is made up of six completely unrelated stories which all fit inside each other and bookend one another with a tenuous link running between them… you damn well write that story!
I hope all these blogs have helped, leave any comments or thoughts you may have below.
A big thank you to ᙢᗴᖇᙓᑕᗩ☂ for writing these blog posts with writing advice as well as creating the banner